Have we adopted the same implicit bias in the church that led to the abuse against the poor in Rochdale and Oldham?

He was the larger than life local hero; they were non-entities locked in the care system who were deemed unreliable witnesses. He was the self-made, pulled-up-by-the-bootstraps local Rochdale lad made good; they simply weren’t worth listening to. That is the implicit bias that permitted Cyril Smith to continue his abuse in Rochdale care homes for so long. In fact, far from being prosecuted, Smith was given a knighthood which allowed him to cement his ties to the children’s homes in which he carried out his abuse. This was similar to the modus operandi of Jimmy Saville, who used his knighthood to align himself to charities that gave him access to UK hospitals in which he abused many of his victims.

Sadly, Rochdale – just like my own town of Oldham (immediately next door to Rochdale) – learnt little from this sordid state of affairs. More recently, it has not been high profile politicians, but South Asian – predominantly Pakistani – gangs grooming council estate girls. These cases were worryingly common across the country despite prominent cases happening here and in Rochdale. Again, in these cases the council estate girls were simply disbelieved – in one case, even accused of acting as a madam – simply because middle class implicit bias preferred to believe in the virtue of all Asian men by default than it did white benefit class girls.

The fear was not about prosecuting those in power, as in the cases of Smith and Saville, who might use their position to cause problems for those pursuing them. In these cases, the fear was of a backlash over the suggestion that the problem was largely to be found among men in the Pakistani community. In essence, the security services and politicians in the know – and many of them did know – were simply more scared of being branded racist than they were concerned with helping the victims. Indeed, all discussion of the issue was shut down. As Brendan O’Neill rightly commented:

Contrast the treatment of middle-class women who have experienced sexism with the treatment of these poorer women who have been abused and raped. When a female Labour MP is called names on Twitter or a feminist student radical overhears a sexist joke, whole new campaigns are built. War is declared on ‘lad culture’. Yvette Cooper will call on women to ‘Reclaim the Internet’. But when girls of few means and little influence are raped by Muslim men, we’d rather not know. It gets reported on, of course, but it’s soon forgotten. It’s just too complicated.

Those who suppress open discussion of Muslim grooming gangs think they’re being socially virtuous, helping to maintain peace between communities. But in truth they have made a repulsive if implicit moral decision: that protecting Islam from criticism is more important than defending the dignity of white working-class girls. They sacrifice their feminism at the altar of multiculturalism. Their concern for women and the poor evaporates in the face of Islam. No price, it seems, is too high when it comes to ringfencing Islam and aspects of Muslim culture from public questioning — even the price of letting down working-class women, or at least making them feel like second-class victims.

In fact, there is something heinously racist about the cover-up. It assumes Asian Muslim men cannot cope with these questions about their community. It tries to cosset them from problems clearly emanating from a disproportionately high number within their community, as Majid Nawaz pointed out. Despite appearances, the issue was not to spare the feelings of the wider Asian community who are not abusers. It was to save the hassle of having to defend against groundless accusations of racism. It was to preserve the simplistic paradigm that multiculturalism is only and always good rather than having to explain their opinion that is closer to reality that multiculturalism can be, and often is, good but isn’t without its issues. Rather than do that, it was just easier to ignore the victims and call them liars. And who cares because they’re white underclass.

This was the mindset that permitted rampant abuse in Rochdale. First, by the beloved politicians and later by Asian sex-gangs. Both were viewed as a protected class, both viewed white working-class boys and girls as fair game. Shockingly, the middle-class establishment seemed to tacitly endorse that view.

I am not suggesting for one minute that the church at large, in any part of the country or among any class group, endorses this sort of abuse. However, there is a sense in which the same implicit bias that was at play among those who permitted this abuse to continue unabated is at work within the UK church. I do not mean in respect to paedophilia itself but rather the implicit bias that is often at play toward working-class people.

The essential view that played out was that white working-class boys and girls were simply the cost of not making life too uncomfortable for those in power. The fear of prosecution by Smith or Saville, and the fear of being accused of racism by Asian abusers, meant that accusations were ignored, even to the point of calling the victims liars. Not only that, but an implicit bias that said the politician, TV personality and Asian men were inherently more trustworthy than the boys and girls in care or living on the estate.

Whilst I am not for one second suggesting the church at large, in any area or class community, has in any way endorsed this sort of abuse tacitly or otherwise. Some of the same implicit biases are present, if not prevalent.

We very often convince ourselves that the middle-classes will be more receptive to the gospel than the working-classes. We put on middle-class events and target middle-class people. Whenever discussions about ‘strategic’ approaches to church arise, they almost never include local council estates and deprived towns. We have convinced ourselves that to reach the UK we must reach the ‘key influencers’ and these are simply not to be found in deprived communities. It is a handy view that allows us to remain in our middle-class ivory towers, attempting to reach middle-class people just like us, while the urban poor are deemed collateral damage.

If we often do determine to reach the poor, we run a youth group or something in a community centre on an estate nearby, simply bussing our guys over to it and then heading back home to our middle-class areas afterwards. It feels like more of a colonial mission than a real heart for the unreached. If by God’s grace, somebody from an estate comes into the church, we immediately start trying to make them more middle-class. I have heard people say in all seriousness, on more than one occasion, ‘when they come into the church, they will become more middle-class, won’t they?’ There is an implicit belief that working-class culture is bad and any vestiges of it must be removed in the church. Middle-class culture, by contrast, is equated with Biblical-culture.

Much of this stems from one of two things. Either, we are so consumed with our own comfort that we daren’t do anything that might mean we have to interact with people who aren’t like us and who view things culturally differently. Just like those who covered up the abuse in these cases, to help the working-class would have been awkward and difficult and highly uncomfortable. They simply didn’t want to do it. We have, in many places, aped exactly the same mindset that permitted rampant abuse to continue unabated. In our case, it’s not the children having to live with the effect of predatory paedophilia, it is the much worse consequence of men and women heading for a lost eternity.

Otherwise, we are inactive out of fear. We couldn’t possibly move to those ‘rough’ places because the schools aren’t good enough and our children will suffer. We couldn’t go to that area, I don’t fit in and the people wouldn’t accept me. It is simply a fear of some backlash, or potential problem, that leads us to stay exactly where we are. It was fear by those in authority that they would be labelled racist, or might get sued, that meant they would not pursue persistent accusations. The result of their fear was that children were systematically abused. Interestingly, our fears about the schools, the area, the people are considerably less significant than those of the fearful authorities in Rochdale and Oldham and yet, the consequences of our inaction out of fear, are considerably worse. The failure of the authorities led to heinous abuse – which all agree is serious enough – whereas our failure to act will see swathes of people heading to Hell for eternity.

Could it be that the same implicit bias that led the authorities to ignore, even cover up, child abuse among the poor is the same bias at play in the UK church? Out of fear, or comfort, the poor remain unreached. We construct narratives as to why we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, make them a priority. This is precisely the same as the police did in Rochdale. Without someone going to those estates and taking the victims seriously, nothing was going to stop the rampant abuse. Without someone going to those same estates and taking sin and judgement seriously, nothing is going to save the urban poor.

We can go after the ‘high-ups’ and the influencers if we want, but the Bible tells us that the gospel is good news to the poor. It tells us ‘few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you’ (1Co 1:26). Indeed, it is hard for the rich and influential to enter the kingdom of God (Mat 19:24). This tells me that if we put all our eggs in that basket, we are going to be sorely disappointed at the return. All the while we are chasing the handful of influential nobility who might respond to the gospel (and there are fewer of them anyway), the poor – whom Jesus also died for and of whom there are many, many more – are lost, outside the kingdom, with no one bothering.

If you would like to partner with us in reaching out to the urban unreached, you can read about Oldham here and give to the work of Oldham Bethel Church here. If you are not sure why you should give, you can read about why you might want to do that here.